8 Tips From Scientists On Covering Polar Bears

Source: Captain Budd Christman, NOAA Corps

After promoting anecdotes from a firefighter to claim that polar bears are “doing just fine,” Fox News has ignored new research that confirms they are still existentially threatened by climate change. This divide in coverage is illustrative of what University of Alberta scientist Dr. Ian Stirling called a “new element” of media -- “the deliberately misleading, and sometimes downright dishonest, treatment of the science around polar bears when it relates to climate warming.” In conversations with Media Matters, Stirling and other leading polar bear scientists outlined eight tips for media outlets seeking to accurately cover the plight of the polar bears.

1. Anecdotal Evidence Doesn't Trump Scientific Evidence.

In February, Fox News repeatedly promoted a book by firefighter Zac Unger on his time in Churchill, Manitoba to claim that “the polar bears are doing just fine.” Even though bears in that region are actually among the subpopulations in decline, Fox News suggested that the book undermined climate science. Dr. Andrew Derocher, a scientific advisor to Polar Bears International, called that premise “flawed” and told Media Matters that “scientific literature shows very clearly the loss of sea ice in the satellite record and the projections (many many scientific papers) show that the future will be particularly challenging for polar bears as the sea ice disappears.” He added, “I've worked on polar bears for 30 years and the changes are incredibly easy to see but as scientists, we don't just look at bears, we measure them and analyze the data.”

Stirling criticized Unger for “a very sad piece of deliberately misleading and dishonest writing” that “tells only parts of the story that suit him.” Similarly, Derocher said it was “unfortunate” when “someone who clearly doesn't understand a subject well botches up the science.” Furthermore, media should not rely on anecdotal information when there is “a lot of data” on sea ice and polar bear body condition. He added:

The book you mentioned was written by someone who spent a few months in 1 place with his family talking to people. What I did on my last trip to Kentucky doesn't qualify me to rewrite the history [of] the eastern US. I've worked on polar bears for 30 years. Many of my colleagues for even longer. You don't go to a plumber for heart surgery but when it comes to polar bears “everybody is an expert”. In science, an expert has to demonstrate expertise. Hanging around in Churchill for a few months talking to the locals doesn't qualify as an expert. Our last paper on polar bears in Conservation Letters had something like 200 years of cumulative polar bear expertise. How it can be that media put the scientific perspective on par with a casual observer is beyond me.

In fact, some reports that rely on polar bear sightings to conclude they are doing “fine” may be unwittingly underscoring the urgency of sea ice melt. As lost habitat drives bears from their hunting grounds, they sometimes wander into towns and garbage dumps. This may lead to more contact with humans, and an overall impression that polar bears are abundant, even to the point of being a nuisance. In fact, as Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, a former polar bear project leader at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), told Media Matters, a bear sighting in a new place “probably means the bears are having a hard time making a living where they used to make a living.”

2. Recovery From Hunting Doesn't Undercut Ongoing Threat To Polar Bears.

Unger promoted the popular media claim that polar bear populations have increased -- or are even "exploding" -- since the 1960s or 1970s, but those reports omit necessary context. Many of the starting-point estimates are based on a Russian calculation from the 1950s -- 5,000-8,000 bears -- that has never been broadly accepted by scientists. Amstrup told Media Matters that “we really don't know how many polar bears there were in the 60s [or 70s]” and it is “important to set the record straight.”  In 2008, Stirling told then-CNN Executive Producer for Science Peter Dykstra that the estimate was “almost certainly much too low.”

In some places, thanks to conservation efforts like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and a subsequent international agreement, it does appear that polar bear populations have increased. According to Amstrup, Alaskan populations are a good example of such managed recovery. But in other areas, such as western Hudson Bay and the southern Beaufort Sea, populations are thought to be declining. And as Derocher pointed out, conservation biology is concerned with the future, normally examining issues three generations down the road. By this measure, polar bears are indeed in trouble, and looking back to the 1960s or 70s makes no sense:

What climate deniers like to pull out is that there are more polar bears now than in the 1960s.  That doesn't matter and just because we've corrected excessive harvest rates (commercial hunting for example) in the 1960s doesn't make this argument any more relevant to the conservation of the species today moving forward in time.

Amstrup echoed this point, saying “the population on the Titanic was doing just fine until just before it slipped beneath the waves.” Overall, the USGS has projected that changes in Arctic ice conditions could result in “loss of approximately 2/3 of the world's current polar bear population by the mid 21st century.”

3. The Impact Of Climate Change On Polar Bears Deserves More Coverage.

The deterioration of Arctic sea ice brought on by manmade warming is a major risk for polar bears, chiefly because it affects their access to seals and other prey. Yet a Media Matters report found that in summer 2012, the major TV news stations covered then-Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan's workout over three times more than Arctic sea ice loss.

Just recently, a study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology found that as climate change causes Arctic sea ice to melt earlier each summer and refreeze later each winter, bears in Canada's western Hudson Bay are driven onto land and away from their hunting grounds, further solidifying evidence that rising temperatures disrupt their migration habits. Derocher, a co-author of the report, told Media Matters that the study was important because “Trends in sea ice are one thing but what the bears actually do is another.” Contrary to some predictions, he said, bears have not shown any sign of modifying their migration times in order to cope with less sea ice, putting some populations at great risk. The media have once again ignored this study.

The USGS has projected that changes in Arctic ice conditions could result in “loss of approximately 2/3 of the world's current polar bear population by the mid 21st century.” Amstrup told Media Matters in a phone interview that scientists could state “unequivocally [that] polar bears will disappear” unless we take action to reduce emissions. But a Nexis search of Fox News and Fox Business transcripts shows that polar bears were mentioned 15 times in the last year, and nearly half of those segments implied they are not in danger or suggested that protecting them wouldn't be worth the effort. None of those segments featured scientists, and nobody acknowledged that polar bears are, in fact, imperiled by manmade warming.

4. Polar Bears Will Not Just “Adapt.”

In an essay in The Wall Street Journal, Unger also claimed that polar bears could simply survive these changes by eating goose eggs and vegetation instead of seals. Stirling called this “simply nonsense.” In 2004, Derocher, Stirling and University of Alberta colleague Dr. Nicholas Lunn wrote in a peer-reviewed article that “All ursids [bears] show behavioural plasticity but given the rapid pace of ecological change in the Arctic, the long generation time, and the highly specialised nature of polar bears, it is unlikely that polar bears will survive as a species if the sea ice disappears completely.” Derocher told Media Matters that the connection between reduced sea ice and imperiled polar bears is not just based on projection -- we know from past shifts that populations have trouble adapting:

The climate change deniers don't like the polar bear science as it shows a tangible effect of inaction. I don't advocate for polar bears but I do advocate for people understanding the science as it pertains to polar bears. The sea ice is disappearing (few argue against this). However, no sea ice, no polar bears. How do we know? The experiment was done 10,000-12,000 years ago. Polar bears used to live in the Baltic Sea off of Sweden and Finland. We know from fossil remains. We know that they aren't there now but the prey of polar bears, ringed seals, still hang on. There is still some sea ice that forms every winter BUT there's not enough ice to allow polar bears to survive there. The polar bears in the Baltic didn't eat more goose eggs or berries or become more terrestrial: their habitat disappeared and so did they. They went locally extinct. Climate change scenarios indicate that the future for polar bears suggest that 2/3 bears will be gone by mid-century.

In 2010, fossil DNA showing modern polar bears split off from brown bears led some to suggest that large-scale adaptive shifts could happen now, but even the researchers who conducted the study acknowledged that current climate change “may be occurring at such an accelerated pace that we do not know if polar bears will be able to keep up.” A 2012 study published in the journal Science found that polar bears split off from brown and black bears even earlier than previously thought -- as much as 600,000 years ago -- which suggests that those long-term adjustments couldn't be compared to those needed to respond to the quick shifts associated with manmade climate change.

Amstrup explained that using the fossil record to conclude polar bears will “adapt” is comparing “warming occurring over millennia vs. [over] decades.” In any case, within a century, polar bears “will be off the charts of anything they've seen in their evolutionary history” in terms of temperatures. A 2012 review of polar bear research by Derocher and Stirling explained that the effects of this abnormally ramped-up warming will be exacerbated by low genetic diversity, habitat loss and “additional stressors that did not exist during past warm periods, such as human habitation throughout the Arctic, industrial activities, toxic substances in the food web, and reduced populations of some potential prey species.”

Derocher added in an email that the assumption that polar bears will “adapt” may stem from the fact that people have trouble seeing sea ice as part of an ecosystem:

Nobody has a problem understanding the risk to species of severe deforestation in the Amazon. Nobody assumes that the Amazonian species will “adapt” to clear cuts and agricultural condition. Everyone implicitly understands that habitat loss is a major threat to species. It's no different for polar bears and it isn't polar bear scientists that say the sea ice is disappearing. People have a difficult time understanding that sea ice is a habitat. I think this difficult comes from the fact that it melts every year and reforms. Sea ice is like the soil in a forest. No soil, no forest. No ice, no ice ecosystem.

5. Polar Bear Populations Are Declining In Most Areas With Sufficient Data.

In the past, some have seized on reports of stable polar bear populations in specific areas to cast doubt on broader trends. But many areas have shown population declines. Derocher noted that similar trends have been recorded in the southern Beaufort Sea (off Alaska), southern Hudson Bay and Davis Strait. In 2011, Stirling told Media Matters that “the data are quite clear” for areas like Hudson Bay and the southern Beaufort Sea, adding: “There are other populations that are likely declining, in part or largely because of climate warming but usually you don't have long enough data series to say this with confidence.” In addition, some surveys purporting to show population increases have been flawed.

This graphic from the Polar Bear Specialist Group illustrates the 19 distinct subpopulations of polar bears, eight of which are declining and nine of which are data-deficient -- only one, around Nunavut's M'Clintock Channel, is increasing:

Source: Polar Bear Specialist Group

6. Polar Bears Will Not Just Swim To Safety.

Commentators who concede that Arctic sea ice is melting sometimes resort to the claim that polar bears are uniquely suited to such an environment due to their swimming ability. For instance, The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb proclaimed “The Polar Bears Are All Right” in 2008, quoting oft-criticized scientist Dr. Richard Lindzen as saying “They're not worried; they can swim a hundred kilometers.” However, a 2010 paper published in the journal Polar Biology found that although polar bears are capable of swimming long distances between ice floes, such trips may result in significant loss of body mass and “compromise reproductive fitness.” A 2011 study by USGS researchers found that bears engaged in long-range swims were more likely to lose cubs, and Stirling and Derocher noted in 2012 that as a larger number of bears accompanied by cubs are forced to undertake long-distance swims, the number of dead cubs will likely become statistically significant. As Amstrup told Huffington Post in 2008, bears have been observed after long swims “so spent energetically, that they literally don't move for a couple days after hitting shore,” and although they are adept swimmers, “they are not aquatic animals.”

7. It Does Matter What Happens To Polar Bears.

Regardless of whether their plight makes Fox News' Greg Gutfeld "feel bad," polar bears are considered a keystone species, both a vital component and indicator of the health of Arctic marine ecosystems. According to Amstrup, they “integrate everything that's going on underneath them” in the food chain and indicate when something is amiss because “the sea ice is the substrate on which the whole ecosystem is based.” This graphic from the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment illustrates the interconnectedness of the marine food web in the Beaufort Sea, with polar bears preying on seals that prey on fish and crustaceans:

Source: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment

For example, the Arctic fox relies in part on carrion left over from larger predators' kills.

In addition to setting off ecological chain reactions, stresses on polar bears' food supply may lead to more dangerous run-ins with people.

Where polar bears are scarce, it can have different impacts -- for example, reducing sorely-needed hunting income for the Inuit people of Northern Canada. A report commissioned by the Canadian government's environmental policy arm has estimated the overall socioeconomic importance of polar bears at over $6 billion annually, with disproportionate impact on Aboriginal communities.

8. Speak To Scientists.

It is increasingly unlikely that any of the core tenets of the research surrounding polar bears' habitat loss will be overturned. Much like climate change itself, this has pitted what Arctic reporter Ed Struzik called “a disparate band of dissenters -- many of them weighing in on issues in which they have little expertise -- challenging the extensive research of a wide array of scientists.” Derocher lamented the media's focus on controversy, saying there isn't much actual science backing the other side:  “I've no problem with anyone trying to challenge our publications but there are perhaps 3 'denier' oriented papers in the scientific literature. All 3 were rebutted in the literature and this is part of science. The assumptions made by the deniers made it through peer review but didn't stand up well to rebuttal.”

Derocher explained that in addition to polar bear scientists, the media can talk to other experts rather than turning to non-experts such as pundits and Unger:

The scientific publications are growing annually on polar bears and climate change -- from many different agencies and people. If the media wants some “independent perspectives” talk to the sea ice scientists about what sea ice will look like in 40 years. Talk to people that work on other Arctic species: polar bears are just one of the most visible species.

Perhaps the most common use of polar bears by Fox News and other media keen to downplay the dangers of climate change is as mocking shorthand, intended to make any conservation cause seem faddish or trivial. It is sometimes suggested that polar bears are merely a “fundraising tool” or “official mascot for climate-change alarmism” -- or even that the case for climate action rests disproportionately on their welfare.

However, polar bears are an icon of the movement not because evidence relies on them, but because they are among the best living illustrations we have of the effects of rapid climate change on the biosphere. Amstrup explained that their situation is unique because of “the simplicity of their plight and the ease with which we can [use polar bears to] demonstrate how we're affecting the world.” But they are not the only example. According to Derocher, “We could be talking about ringed seals or walrus or narwhal or polar cod (far less photogenic) and climate change but people relate to polar bears. People relate to bears in general wherever they're found.”